Funny Hat Gaming

An interesting commentary from someone who seems as dismayed as I am over the overuse of the Tolkeinian races, albeit coming at the matter from a somewhat different angle:

This is also why when other worlds use these now standard races as plug-in inhabitants, the effect is so often flat.  Instead of rooting these fantastical beings into cultures that make internal sense, instead of building these races of the same soil they inhabit, instead of giving them a language, D&D abstracts their tongues (Common, Elven, Dwarven, Gnomish), and gives short generic and somewhat contradictory descriptions of their culture, ready made to fit any world.  This is why, at least to me, the elves of Shannara feel uncompelling, and the night elves of Kalimdor, though their architecture is consistent, are as hollow as the mesh and skin combination used to represent them on the screen.

Basically he seems to be saying that Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and Orcs worked so well in Tolkein because they were baked into the history of the world in important and meaningful ways, rather than copy/pasted in. I agree, and I think it dovetails with what I said in my own book:

In a work of fiction, an author may take months or years perfecting the plot and prose. They have the time and level of story control to properly explore inhuman characters. At the game table, however, we lack that same luxury of time for introspection. So we go with our human instinct—tinted through the lens of what is, in essence, a racial stereotype. What should be an alien, other-worldly creature instead ends up becoming a guy in a funny hat.

The Tolkeinian races, for all that they worked in The Lord of the Rings, aren’t something that you can just plug-in to a game and play with the same level of emotional depth as presented in stories that were shaped over decades.

The Game Master is now available from DrivethruRPG

I’m pleased to announce that The Game Master is now available as a softcover book through DrivethruRPG. You can order it by clicking on the banner to the right, or by clicking the banner below:

As a special thank you to anyone who has previously donated any amount of money for the eBook edition, please email me at and I will send you a special discount code to purchase the softcover edition.


I picked up a link off Reddit this morning titled How a Blind Player Improved Our Game. It makes some rather good points about how to describe things and its importance to the art of roleplaying. But it does so from the perspective of 4e D&D, and I wanted to talk about that for a moment.

The poster talks about bringing a blind player into the group, and how they suddenly need to describe… Well, everything, including their characters, previously rresented only by the relevant mini on the table.

Suddenly we realize that the lame mini Joe was using to depict his placement on the map looks nothing like the character he’s actually playing. But until he was asked to describe his character for the blind player he didn’t feel it necessary to add these details.

This represents a problem I had with 4e when it first came out, and in a greater sense RPG-minis as a whole: the moment you take the game out of my head/imagination and put in onto the game table is the moment that I cease to “be” my character. My character is that little pewter dude on the table. He is my avatar within the game space, and I control him, but he is not me.

Speaking only for myself, I have found this layer of separation between me and my character—and by extension the game-world as a whole—to be an intolerable burden to my role playing. The “video game” feel has never had anything to do with the rules of the game per se, so much as the fact that I am controlling a little man on a screen (board, whatever).

Think of it like translating a book to a film. The moment, say, The Fellowship of the Ring came out, Aragorn ceased to be the person I imagined in me head, and forever became Viggo Mortensen. The way I always imagined the characters and places of Middle Earth were replaced with those actors and special effects. While they were good movies, I’ve long felt somewhat robbed of the Middle Earth that existed in my mind.

As much as having a grid or hex map to play on clarifies combat, there is a part of me that hopes to resist their use forever because any game that takes place outside of my head will never be “real role playing” to me. I somewhat prefer the images in my head to a piece of plastic surrounded by glass beads and spare dice on a dry-erase board.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e

So the big unavoidable news today is that Wizards of the Coast is (no duh) working on Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition.

The writing has been on the wall for a while now, so it’s not exactly a surprise, but this is the point where the designers will begin talking openly about what their vision for the game is going to be. I don’t have much to say about 5e itself yet, for obvious reasons, but I will be following its development closely. I do, however, have a few initial ponderings:

1) I’m cautiously optimistic. I was never a fan of 4e, so I’m hopeful that 5e will be a game that I want to play.

2) I would like to see a strong 4e community come into existence, on the same order as the one around Pathfinder. Whenever there is talk of a new edition, there are always edition warriors there ready to shit all over the other side. Given the evolution of retro-clones and Pathfinder, I’d like to see people understand that 5e is not a revision of 4e, but rather a system-fork.

Name aside, the various editions of D&D are essentially separate variations on a theme, not unlike the Final Fantasy series. While similar, each one is different, and enjoying one does not diminish the others. I hope that if the RPG community can sustain parallel lines of 3e, 4e, and 5e, it will convince fans of each to just leave each other the hell alone.

3) There were 8 years between the release of 3e and 4e (with a minor revision in 2003), but if WotC is aiming for a 2013 release date, that will only be 5 years between major system refreshes. That’s a worrisome number, which suggests to me that all may not be well in the house of WotC.

EDIT: Jerry over at Penny Arcade (should I call him Tycho? Are we still playing that pretense?) makes a couple of points in line with what I say in point 2 above, pointing out that Wizards is trying to remedy the—as Jerry puts it— balkanization of D&D and the fact that it’s a somewhat hopeless task. Every group already plays the game their own way.

I’m willing to double down on my previous assertion. I want to see D&D become the Baskin-Robbins Linux of RPGs. Let everyone have a flavor distribution they like.

Legends of the Wulin

Short shout-out: about 6 years ago a Wuxia game called Weapons of the Gods was released, a tie-in with a Hong-Kong comic of the same title. The game was amazingly awesome, although it did suffer from a little “first-edition”-itis, and a few mechanics here or there that needed some work.

Unfortunately the game hasn’t had any updates or supplements for a while, and from what I understand the license for the Weapons of the Gods name/setting have been revoked. That’s okay, however, because some of the creators of WotG have created a new game–Legends of the Wulin–using a revised version of the game system and their own setting, and it will be available for pre-order on Wednesday (Dec. 15)!

Check it out — Legends of the Wulin Pre-Sale

Follow Up to Pathfinder MMO Announcement

A quick follow up to the Pathfinder MMO announcement, I recalled that the podcast Fear the Boot (a show I recommend on general principles, as their GMing advice largely mirrors my own) did an interview with Ryan Dancey a few months ago, wherein he talks about his thoughts on the state of the RPG industry and the development of MMOs. If you’re interested in what shape the Pathfinder MMO may take, that interview may be a good starting point.

Actual Play: The Group Contract

I left off last time having created a campaign outline for myself which included the premise of the game, the roles of the protagonists and antagonists, and a number of adventure seeds for myself. When combined with the notes I’ve made regarding the genre and tone I’m shooting for with the game, I have enough infrastructural material that I’m ready to move on to the next step: introducing the game to the players.

The way I do that is with a Group Contract, which introduces the players to some of the precepts I laid out in the campaign outline and gives some information regarding character construction. Fortunately for me, the game system I’ve selected–Hunter: The Vigil–begins with the assumption that the party will be more or less in line with what I’d already intended. Had we been playing a game such as Dungeons and Dragons or even Vampire there would have been a great deal more latitude in terms of what the “purpose” of the party is within the game.

Most of the Group Contract is therefore filling in the players on the exact structure of their group within the conspiracy I’ve created, providing them with goal posts for their character concepts, and outlining what I’d like out of them as far as background material is concerned.

Continue reading “Actual Play: The Group Contract”

Actual Play: The Campaign Outline

After brainstorming some basic concepts and a list of references, and figuring out my system and setting, I’m ready to hash out a campaign outline. In it I’m going to lay out the premise of the game, identify the genre and tone of the campaign, and identify the major players. Some of this information I will share with the other players, while other bits I’ll keep to myself.

The important thing is that I’m creating a reference document that I can use to get a feeling for the campaign and guide my thoughts while writing adventures, not step-by-step list of where I think the campaign will go.

1. The Premise

The premise of the game is that the PCs are all people who have discovered the supernatural world that exists shrouded behind the mask of everyday reality. This is a darker world than our own, and the things which occupy it are brutal and prey on humanity on a daily basis. Rather than run and hide, you have chosen to step into this world with both feet, and hunt the monsters than would hunt mankind. Continue reading “Actual Play: The Campaign Outline”

Actual Play: System and Setting

Last week I gathered my basic thoughts together, so this week I can sit down and put together the campaign outline that I’ll be presenting to the players. The goal is to get everyone on the same page as far as tone of the campaign, and everyone will be able to ponder character concepts in advance of receiving the Group Contract, which will expand upon the role of the party in the campaign world, and also present any relevant information the players will need to make their characters.

Looking at the list of titles I came up with, there were a lot of “fighting the supernatural” themes: Nightwatch, Hellblazer, BRPD, Supernatural, Men in Black, and Predator all have a facing off against supernatural (or extraterrestrial–basically the same thing) threats. There were also a few titles involving conspiracies and existential wars: The Invisibles, Planetary, The X-Files, Assassin’s Creed, and Dollhouse all play off themes of conspiracy and power. The last few: Eternal Darkness, House of Leaves, and the biggie Call of C’thulhu are all on the horror end of the supernatural genre.

True Blood stands out as an exception to those three categories, except insofar as it is kind of a kitchen sink of the modern supernatural genre–essentially the World of Darkness with the numbers filed off. As much as I may not want to run Delta Green proper, I think the idea of a team of badass humans kicking ass and taking names has sufficiently invaded my psyche to the extent that this should be the premise of my game. Continue reading “Actual Play: System and Setting”